The 1991 Tokyo Museum Exhibition That Was Only Accessible by Telephone, Fax & Modem: Features Works by Laurie Anderson, John Cage, William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard & Merce Cunningham

The deep­er we get into the 21st cen­tu­ry, the more ener­gy and resources muse­ums put into dig­i­tiz­ing their offer­ings and mak­ing them avail­able, free and world­wide, as vir­tu­al expe­ri­ences on the inter­net. But what form would a vir­tu­al muse­um have tak­en before the inter­net as we know it today? Japan­ese telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions giant NTT (best known today in the form of the cell­phone ser­vice provider NTT DoCo­Mo) devel­oped one answer to that ques­tion in 1991: The Muse­um Inside the Tele­phone Net­work, an elab­o­rate art exhib­it acces­si­ble nowhere in the phys­i­cal world but every­where in Japan by tele­phone, fax, and even — in a high­ly lim­it­ed, pre-World-Wide-Web fash­ion — com­put­er modem.

“The works and mes­sages from almost 100 artists, writ­ers, and cul­tur­al fig­ures were avail­able through five chan­nels,” says Mono­skop, where you can down­load The Muse­um Inside the Tele­phone Net­work’s cat­a­log (also avail­able in high res­o­lu­tion). “The works in ‘Voice & sound chan­nel’ such as talks and read­ings on the theme of com­mu­ni­ca­tion could be lis­tened to by tele­phone. The ‘Inter­ac­tive chan­nel’ offered par­tic­i­pants to cre­ate musi­cal tunes by push­ing but­tons on a tele­phone. Works of art, nov­els, comics and essays could be received at home through ‘Fax chan­nel.’ The ‘Live chan­nel’ offered artists’ live per­for­mances and tele­phone dia­logues between invit­ed intel­lec­tu­als to be heard by tele­phone. Addi­tion­al­ly, com­put­er graph­ics works could be accessed by modem and down­loaded to one’s per­son­al com­put­er screen for view­ing.”

“We need to rec­og­nize hon­est­ly that there were numer­ous prob­lems with The Muse­um Inside the Tele­phone Net­work,” writes cura­tor and crit­ic Asa­da Aki­ra in the cat­a­log’s intro­duc­tion. “Nei­ther the prepa­ra­tion time nor the means for car­ry­ing it out was suf­fi­cient. Thus there were not a few cre­ative artists whose par­tic­i­pa­tion would have been a great asset to the project, but whom we were forced to do with­out.” Yet its list of con­trib­u­tors, which still reads like a Who’s-Who of the avant-garde and oth­er­wise adven­tur­ous cre­ators of the day, includes archi­tects like Isoza­ki Ara­ta and Ren­zo Piano, musi­cians like Lau­rie Ander­son and Sakamo­to Ryuichi, direc­tors like Kuro­sawa Kiyoshi and Derek Jar­man, writ­ers like William S. Bur­roughs and J.G. Bal­lard, com­posers like John Cage and Philip Glass, chore­o­g­ra­phers like William Forsythe, Mer­ce Cun­ning­ham, and visu­al artists like Yokoo Tadanori and Jeff Koons.

The Muse­um Inside the Tele­phone Net­work launched as the first ven­ture of NTT’s Inter­Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Cen­ter (ICC), a “21st-cen­tu­ry muse­um that will pro­vide inter­face between sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy and art and cul­ture in the com­ing elec­tron­ic age,” as Asa­da described it in 1991. Hav­ing recent­ly cel­e­brat­ed its 20th year open in Toky­o’s Opera City Tow­er, the ICC con­tin­ues to put on a vari­ety of non-vir­tu­al exhi­bi­tions very much in the spir­it of the orig­i­nal, and involv­ing some of the very same artists as well (as of this writ­ing, they’re ready­ing a music instal­la­tion co-cre­at­ed by Sakamo­to). But offline or on, any union of art and tech­nol­o­gy is only as inter­est­ing as the spir­it moti­vat­ing it, and the cre­ators of such projects would do well to keep in mind the words of The Muse­um Inside the Tele­phone Net­work con­trib­u­tor Kon­dou Kou­ji: “I hope that peo­ple will think of this as the expe­ri­ence of acci­den­tal­ly drift­ing into a tele­phone net­work, where­in awaits a vast world of plea­sure and fun.”

via @monoskop

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of the 1913 Exhi­bi­tion That Intro­duced Avant-Garde Art to Amer­i­ca

Take a Vir­tu­al Real­i­ty Tour of the World’s Stolen Art

Japan­ese Com­put­er Artist Makes “Dig­i­tal Mon­dri­ans” in 1964: When Giant Main­frame Com­put­ers Were First Used to Cre­ate Art

Good Morn­ing, Mr. Orwell: Nam June Paik’s Avant-Garde New Year’s Cel­e­bra­tion with Lau­rie Ander­son, John Cage, Peter Gabriel & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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